In the past I have written about several trips to London with my wife which involved significant watch browsing, but today was different. Today I took my friend Rich (who last year bought himself a Pelagos LHD) instead, and this trip was much more watch focused as a result. Rich hadn't been to London for about 9 years, way before he got interested in watches, so this was a great opportunity to share with him all the cool things I've seen over the past few years.
But we started off with a brief visit to The National Gallery. I knew we were going to be in London a bit too early, so we headed down to Trafalgar Square so that I could show Rich a couple of pictures in there. I showed him 'The Ambassadors' by Holbein and 'An Experiment with a Bird in a Vacuum Pump' by Joseph Wright.
Holbein's piece is incredible and getting in early before the crowds gave us the chance to really appreciate the incredible detailing in this painting, it really seems like you could feel the velvet texture of the figure on the right's coat and the tassles the figure on the left is holding are also particularly fine.
AN EXPERIMENT ON A BIRD WITH A VACUUM PUMP
Wright's painting on the other hand is notable mainly for it's incredible use of candlelight, the way it illuminates the figures around the table and also the depiction of the gloomy corners in the background. It really is pretty amazing even if the subject of the painting is slightly unpleasant.
We looked at a few other paintings on our way out, but we were now heading for Leicester Square (stopping briefly in the Lego shop for Rich to dribble over the 'Millennium Falcon' - an eye watering £649!) and on to Regent Street. Our first port of call was 'Watches of Switzerland' and here we clapped eyes on the brand new Formula One Quartz with the black dial (like the Red Bull version only black).
The new Formula One looks great, although I have to say I think I prefer it in the blue dial (Red Bull) configuration. They also had the NATO strap version which I don't like, mainly because the strap retainers are massive and ugly. There was some comedy as the lady in the shop (who was very nice) told me the bezel was rotating and I tried, then struggled and finally gave up and finally gave it back to her to try... after which she conceded that it probably didn't move! While the bracelet is fine I wasn't terribly blown away by the folding clasp.
Also in Watches of Switzerland I finally got to try on my friend's Tudor Pelagos LHD. That might sound slightly stupid, but the fact is Rich's wrists are so small and he's taken so many links out of his bracelet that I can't actually get it over my hand to try it on!
Being largely titanium the watch was surprisingly light for a chunky 42mm diver and felt great on the wrist. It's funny, last year when I went down to London LHD's were notable by their absence and the man in Watches of Switzerland was super-impressed that my friend had one as he told me 'I can order you one but I've no idea when you will get it'.
This time they had one in the window and at least one inside, but the nice lady still tried to reassure us that it was 'very rare' and hard to get, even though we seemed to see it everywhere, which was rather disappointing for Rich...
We had a good look at the Breitlings, Bell and Rosses, Zeniths, Hublots, Baume and Merciers and the other Tudors, but ignored the dull Longines display and Rados.
We were in Watches of Switzerland for quite a while (there are three floors of watches) and before we left we headed to the back of the second floor and had a quick look at the Cartier boutique. I'm not usually into Cartier, but the other day I saw a nice Cartier Santos 100 in black DLC on Watchfinder's site and lo and behold here it was.
This is a very different kind of watch for me, but I really like it. I particularly like the red second hand which gives it a definite limited edition Monaco vibe (especially with the square case). The strap was really nice as well, it seemed like something akin to the TAG material straps only rather better quality (as you'd expect at this price to be fair). The clasp I wasn't so taken with, like the new Link it's the kind the folds in from both sides and seemed awkward to put on, also I'm not sure the pushers wouldn't dig into my wrist, I think I'd have to try it on again. One problem is I don't think you can size the strap until you buy it, so you can't be entirely sure, that's a bit of a shame.
The caseback is solid and I'm not entirely sure what movement is inside, though from a little research it appears to be ETA (though that info is dated and it could potentially have been changed). The watch is just under £7,000 and I'd say it looks worth every penny, it's certainly stylish and the one I saw on Watchfinder has already sold for just under £6,000. I can't say I'm that surprised, this is a very nice looking watch indeed, maybe this is the watch I should be saving for?
After a quick pit stop at the Slug and Lettuce on Hanover Street, we made our way along Oxford Street towards the new TAG boutique, but on the way we came across a 'Swatch' shop and popped inside to have a look at the System 51 models, and in particular the System Schwiiz.
Rich really liked it and was debating whether to buy it when his wife rang him, which was quite funny since it was almost like she could sense he was about to 'spend money' or something. In the end he decided to think it over and we moved on down Oxford Street.
Just before we got to the TAG boutique we came across a Goldsmiths where I found the black and red version of the Drive Timer. I tried it on and was very impressed with it, although I still can't quite shake the niggling feeling that it's basically the same as my Heuer01 (this could continue for some time I think...).
Again the staff in here were very nice and positively encouraged me to take one of the new 2017-2018 TAG Heuer catalogues with me (cheers!) and then after a few more steps down Oxford Street we finally arrived at the TAG Heuer flagship store.
As you can imagine, I was pretty excited to visit the new store (and so was Rich, a long time Aquaracer enthusiast), but sadly I have to say I was rather underwhelmed. Firstly there was a doorman there who just kinda glowered at us, I mean... there's doormen at lots of places in London, but most of them are welcoming (while at the same time letting you know that they aren't going to stand for any funny business), this guy didn't say a word, he just kinda stared grumpily at us. I mean we were schlepping around London all day, so we were dressed pretty comfortably, but that really shouldn't matter. I had a woman in Selfridges offer to let me try on a £22,000 Audemars Piguet not half an hour after I left TAG, so... y'know.
Secondly, this is supposedly the biggest collection of TAG Heuer watches in the UK or Europe (I'm not sure), but it was pretty ho-hum to be honest. There was almost nothing in there that I hadn't seen anywhere else, one notable exception being the 2016 Heuer Mikrograph which was a nice surprise.
The only other items that I hadn't seen elsewhere recently was a Monaco LS (surprisingly cool) and a diamond bezel Heuer01 on a steel bracelet (pretty ugly to be honest, but a seemingly reasonable £7,000). Leaving aside the surly doorman, it wasn't that the staff were particularly unpleasant to us, or unprofessional, but the store just seemed to have a 'coldness' to it that didn't make you want to stay there... a bit like a pub with a bad atmosphere I guess, just something doesn't feel quite right. It also has this slightly 'temporary' feel, they haven't fitted it out properly so you can still see the brick walls above the cabinets so it kinda feels like a pop-up store. I'm guessing it's a deliberate choice to make it feel 'edgy' or something, but to be honest I much prefer the feel of the Meadowhall store.
After making sure they didn't have a secret stash of WAY208C Aquaracers.... nope, still sold out - although apparently they still get enquiries (bet they wish they'd made more of those and less of the blue nylon strap phantom Aquaracers huh... more on that shortly) we decided to cut our losses and left. But not before the doorman had gurned menacingly at us for a second time. I mean seriously dude, what is your problem?
So we crossed the street and walked straight into Selfridges' 'Wonder Room'. What a difference from there to here, the door took us straight to the TAG Heuer counter where a very friendly salesman engaged me in conversation abut my orange and black CAU2012 Calibre 16 Formula One and was only too happy to let me try on the aforementioned blue phantom Aquaracer.
There were two main reasons for trying this one on, for one thing I wanted to get a feel for how the WAY208C might feel should I ever decide to buy one without being able to try it on first, and second... I really want to like this watch, but it doesn't really work. If you look at some pictures on the internet they show the blue on the dial really popping, but in reality it doesn't, it's just really muddy and phantom-like. I get that with the grey phantom, but here it doesn't really come together and this picture (above) really shows what the watch is actually like.
I really want it to look more like this, but it just doesn't - which is a shame. And the lume seemed very weak as well, which was disappointing, and odd, since the WAY208C seems to have great lume.
Selfridges also had the camouflage Aquaracer which is another model I really, really like, but I can't abide that strap. Rich suggested getting a black nylon strap with blue stitching which is fitted to a steel cased Aquaracer from the same range, but I'm not sure if it would fit since I believe the Camo model is 43mm and the Aquaracer we were looking at was 41mm. If they made that Aquaracer in a 43mm version then that could be an option though...
We spent quite a long time in Selfridges', which has an amazing selection of just about every watch brand you can think of: Hublots, Bretilings, Corums, Girard Perregaux, Tudors, Carl F Bucherers, Roger Dubuis, Piaget, Chopard, Cartier, Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Frederique Constant, Tissot... though I must admit I don't think they had Omega or Patek watches in there.
They did have Bulgari though and we got to see a few examples of the amazing Finissimo (we also saw the 'tourbillon' version pictured below, but not until we visited Bond St later).
As a rule, I don't like to waste people's time, and so generally I don't try on watches that I can't potentially afford to buy. My thinking is that I will try on a £8,000 watch, because if I absolutely fall in love with it, then potentially I could save for it, and so to me that means I'm not wasting the salesman's time. On the other hand I won't try on a £14,000 watch, because realistically that's not something I'm going to be able to afford in the near future
However, we were looking at the Audemar Piguet Royal Oaks and a very friendly lady came up to us and started asking us if we wanted to try one on and since I've never tried a Royal Oak on before I suddenly got very bold and decided I was going to give it a go.
In a way, I think it's sometimes dangerous to try on watches that are beyond your means, because if you totally fall in love with it, it could mean that you become a little dissatisfied with what you have and what you can realistically afford. The Royal Oak I tried on was a shade under £22,000 and I was very impressed with it, but thankfully it didn't 'ruin me for cheaper watches' or anything. Which isn't to say that I didn't love it, because I did, I just think that I have a kind of inner reality check which stops me getting too carried away. I think the same thing happened when I got the opportunity to try on the Monaco 24 Concept watch years ago, I knew I couldn't afford it, so I didn't allow myself to get too about it.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore 'Vampire'
However, I was very impressed, and should the day come when I have some seriously chunky amounts of cash available to spend on watches, I think I would certainly consider an AP Royal Oak Off Shore. I know Rich was totally blown away by it as well, an incredible watch.
I looked to see if they still had the Royal Oak Ceramic Concept watch (£160,000), not that I was going to try it on... just wanted to show Rich, but sadly it had gone. Our friendly sales lady confided that they weren't able to order it either, apparently most of the bigger watch companies just send them watches to sell and they should think themselves lucky... interesting to know!
From here we made our way back down Oxford Street before veering off at some point in the hope of finding Avery Row. We followed a road which looked promising and as luck would have it at the end, right in front of us was a very narrow little passage leading to Avery Row.
This was a part of London I had never been to before and the reason for this detour was to find the Watchfinder branch situated there.
By this time it was raining quite a bit and we were glad to find it and get inside, but damn if this place wasn't a HUGE disappointment. Canary Wharf was a bit of a let down compared to the Royal Exchange, but this one was pathetic. I don't think they could have had more than fifty watches in the whole place and we barely stayed five minutes. I didn't even notice the five TAGs they had until I went back outside and saw them in the other window... I can't remember exactly what they had, but there was a PVD coated Monaco and a not very nice gold bezel, steel bracelet Aquaracer from about ten years ago.
Rather dejected, we returned to the miserable rain and trooped along until we found the back of the Breitling boutique on Bond Street. I visited this boutique last year with my wife and tried on the excellent lightweight Avenger Hurricane 45mm, this time I got to try on the Breitling Chronomat 44 Jet Team, which is a limited edition of 500 pieces and looks and feels fantastic on the wrist.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, this is also slightly out of my immediate price range... I think it was around the £7,200 mark, or something like that. A lot of money, but a very cool watch. Once again the sales lady in there was absolutely charming and wasn't remotely phased by our (wet) jeans and T-shirts.
We had a good look around the boutique before setting off again, it was starting to get dark now and we were getting hungry, so we didn't really visit anywhere else on Bond Street. We did look in a few windows, including the Opera Gallery where we saw a very neat picture of a horse made out of the ends of paintbrushes and also a large scale face made up of what looked like bike chains (incidentally, this is where I saw the Alec Monopoly sculpture last year).
And so we came to Richoux on Picadilly which is a lovely Edwardian restaurant and patisserie where we enjoyed the Richoux Cheese Burger. I really wanted a carrot cake (highly recommended) but I couldn't manage it and after a suitable rest we crossed the road and wandered up Burlington Arcade.
I'd never been up Burlington Arcade before and it was surprising how long it was... it seemed to go on and on. It was also quite dark and lit mainly by tree lights outside the shopfronts, so in a way it kind of feels like it's open air since the roof is so high.
We spotted a Hublot boutique in there with some nice pieces, including a sapphire case Big Bang. Also, further along there was a vintage Heuer Monaco with a blue dial on offer for £29,000... personally I'd take the Royal Oak Off Shore and £7,000 in the pocket without a moment's hesitation! But still... it was interesting to see a pukka old Monaco (with it's original red box no less).
We also spotted a vintage Bulgari snake watch which was interesting as we had seen the most up-to-date incarnation in Bond Street just a short time before.
Leaving Burlington Arcade we crossed back over the road and took a short walk down to Fortnum and Mason. Rich had never been here before so it was just a quick walk in to get a feel for the place and then back out and down to Green Park to catch the tube to Kensington.
Our ultimate destination of course was the Harrods watch room, but first we made a slight detour through the (very polluted) streets up to the Seiko boutique, which was somewhere neither of us had been before.
This was one shop where Rich probably knew more about the watches than I did, since I'm not terribly into the Seiko range. There were some nice watches in there to be fair, but it seems a bit strange that you would pay £4000 for a Seiko and that's not even getting into the Grand Seiko stuff. It's a slightly odd boutique in that the prices start at around £300 for some of the basic models, although some of them are quite nice too, there was one particular model with a dark grey bezel and a Submarineresque aesthetic which I quite liked and another with a very smart blue to black fading dial with a very cool and intricate wave pattern on it.
Again the staff in here were very nice and respectful and one lady in particular was super friendly without being in the slightest bit pushy. We probably stayed for about a quarter of an hour and then headed back down the Brompton Road, along the front of Harrods to the far side and entered the door. We slipped through the fine jewellery room, fully focused on our goal and trying not to be dazzled and sidetracked by the incredible Harry Winston and Piaget creations.
We arrived at the usual bottle-neck next to the Rolex store and I was somewhat confused. Where last year there had been a room full of boutiques there was now a big hole in the floor and a sweeping staircase down to the new watch room. But, at the top of the stairs there remained the Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, Cartier and Richard Mille booths. Richard Mille's new booth was particularly tiny and I wonder if this is a temporary measure as I don't believe the watch room renovation has been completed as yet.
I think there were six Richard Mille pieces on display in all, albeit most of those were ladies watches covered in diamonds and there seemed to be no 'classic' Richard Mille 'RM35' type watches available to look at. Amazingly, even here, gawking at watches that cost more than our houses (probably) the salesman was 100% professional and greeted us on entry.
We headed downstairs and into the (quite busy) Hublot boutique, more crazy watches were to be found including the Depeche Mode watch and the skeletonised Ferrari model.
The Depeche Mode watch looked a lot better in the flesh than it does in pictures and it comes in a colossal box with the Depeche Mode logo on the top. I could be funny and say it's the best thing Depeche Mode have done since Alan Wilder left, but I won't. And actually it's not true, there was one good song on 'Playing the Angel' after all. :)
The Ferrari watch is really something, but sadly at £107,000 it's something else that won't be gracing my collection any time soon, but it does serve to make the AP look rather reasonable in comparison.
We checked out the Panerai boutique, and the elegant A Lange and Sohne pieces, where again a splendid chap told us he would be more than happy to help us with any questions, even though it must have been clear to him that neither of us looked likely to be in a position to splurge £168,000 on a timepiece...
As we'd already been to a Breitling boutique we gave that a miss, but had a quick look at the TAG Heuer collection (just in case there was a WAY208C knocking about) and the Tudors, including the Black Bay Harrods numbered edition, which I had never heard of but which Rich seemed to know about. The piece they had there was number 38, apparently Tudor doesn't do 'limited editions', so it's an open ended run. I thought it looked rather nice I must admit and at £2700 it looks like good value for money.
There was one more place I was looking forward to taking Rich, and that was Roger Dubuis. In a day that was sometimes a little disappointing (not least being too full for carrot cake in Richoux), thankfully Roger Dubuis lived up to expectations and even provided us with the new Aventador S to dribble over.
Limited to just 88 pieces in yellow (and eight in orange IIRC) this is something quite remarkable and certainly caught my attention. Again, at $185,000 it's not something I will ever get to own... but critically, the sales lady was polite and asked if we knew the brand and if we owned any of their pieces. Also on show was one of the 'Knights of the Round Table' watches and a quadruple tourbillon Excaliber piece which was as incredible as it was oversized!
I know I'm banging on about the service a lot today and yes I am trying to make a point, that obviously being that of all the crazy watch stores we went in, the only one were we felt a little uncomfortable was TAG Heuer. If I can walk into a boutique where watches cost nearly as much as my house and be made to feel welcomed, then surely it shouldn't be asking too much to feel welcome in the flagship store of the 'affordable luxury' brand that I champion and defend over all others (and crucially, that I own and continue to buy).
Okay, maybe it was partly that we were expecting too much, and I will definitely go back. But on the day I would happily have bought TAGs from Harrods, Goldsmiths or Selfridges, but it would have taken something quite special to have made me part with money in the TAG boutique itself, and as we've already ascertained all the WAY208Cs are gone.
Overall, and despite some minor disappointments it was a fantastic day, but suddenly around 7pm we started to feel very tired and decided it was time to start the long journey home. According to Rich's phone we'd walked about 9 miles and about 19,000 steps, no wonder our legs are still aching!